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Portland, O r e g o k 

Scriptor Press 

The Witness 

by Joyce Carol Oates 

edited by Raymond Soulard, Jr. 
& Kassandra Soulard 

Number Fifty 

The Witness, 1984 
by Joyce Carol Oates 

Burning Man Books is 

an imprint of 

Scriptor Press 

2442 NW Market Street-#363 

Seattle, Washington 98107 

This volume was composed 

in the AGaramond font 
in PageMaker 7.0 on the 
Macintosh G4 computer 

When you were young, 
and there seemed no doors to daylight . 

My father lies on top of the bedspread, the pillows propped 
up crooked behind him, the seashell ashtray on his chest, 
smoking, leafing through the Bible, staring smiling out the 
window. "The Holy Ghost has departed me," he sometimes says. I am 
running light as air across the roofs on Main Street. Threading my way 
through the flapping laundry, around the television antennae. One of 
the neighbor women calls out to me. Be careful, you're going to trip 
yourself and fall, you're going to hurt yourself, but already I'm a mile 
away, five miles away, running so lightly I only need to come to earth to 
bounce up again, springy, my toes like a monkey's toes, my hair flying. 
You don't know what you're saying, my mother tells me. Her 
eyes are puffy from crying. Her lips look chapped — all the lipstick has 
been wiped off. You're dreaming with your eyes open: you're a liar. 

I was running away from home but not for the first time. I had taken 
$3.87 from the secret place in my mother's stockings-and-underwear 
drawer in the bureau. Beneath the sheet of old Christmas wrapping 
paper. I was running, flying, galloping. No one could catch me. No one 
saw me. Mrs. Howard hanging her laundry, old sour-breathed Mr. 
Ledbetter on the first floor landing, Whoa, horsey! Where are you going 
so fast? Do you live in this building? 

Why do they always talk in loud joking voices. And make swipes 
at my hair because of the curls. But I have learned to duck and keep on 
running. . . . 

You tell such lies, my sister Irene says. But of course she's jealous. 

It is many years ago, too many to calculate. Below Waterman Park where 
you're not supposed to go alone the man with the coat slung over his 
shoulder is speaking softly and angrily to the woman in the peasant 
blouse, but I can't hear, I have pressed the palms of my hands against 
my ears. I am not to blame, I am only eleven years old. 

It is the last summer we will be living above Harders Shoes on 
Main Street, Main Street at the corner of Mohigan, a few weeks before 
the fire, before everything is changed. "What is going to happen?" my 
mother's sister from Trenton asked. "He isn't dangerous, is he? — I mean, 
you or the girls — " My mother didn't answer at first. Maybe she knew I 
was listening behind the door. Then she made a sound I couldn't decipher, 

The Witness • 5 

a laugh, a thin tired snorting kind of laugh. She said: "Not the girls, he's 
crazy about the girls." 

I am running away from them, from the apartment on Main 
Street. Irene and me sharing a bed, Momma on the sofa in the living 
room, my father in the "large" bedroom. Was he dangerous? No. Yes 
maybe. Of course not. Sometimes love for us brimmed in his eyes. 
Sometimes he had to wipe at his eyes, ashamed, with the back of his 

I am running away to Waterman Park. My father shuffles the 
cards for a game of gin rummy, then changes his mind, lets the cards fall 
onto the floor, a cascade like water falling, with almost no sound. He 
isn't drunk but he isn't friendly right now. His feet are bare and bluish- 
white and the nail of the big toe on the injured foot is that queer plum 
color, and grown very thick: maybe a quarter-inch thick. 

He reaches for the Bible, he reaches for a fresh pack of cigarettes. 

He says: "Get out of here. Shut the door. I've had enough of 
you spying on me — all of you." His voice is low and murmuring, he 
doesn't sound angry. He never does. 

It is an afternoon in late August. Warm muggy motionless air. I am 
running up the dim-lit stairs to the room, the three bills and the coins 
are in my pocket, no one will know where I've gone. My mother is at 
work, my sister is at a friend's house, my father is lying on top of the 
bedspread, smiling, not smiling, staring out the window. The bedspread 
is scorched in several places from his cigarettes. 

I slam outside, letting the door strike against the asphalt siding, 
not taking time to close it. The tarry roof is quivering with heat. It is 
our last summer. The four-room apartment above the shoe store. The 
sandstone building. Main Street at Mohigan. Momma worked days at 
the hospital out East End Avenue, Irene was fourteen and in tenth grade 
at the high school. My father went out sometimes in the evening. Then 
he wouldn't come home until two or three in the morning, or much 
later, eight o'clock, but we wouldn't see him, he'd go into the bathroom 
and lock the door. But most of the time he didn't go out. They were 
quarreling once and I overheard my mother say, Why don't you leave, 
then, go back to Isle Royale and live alone the rest of your life — go to 
Alaska for Christ's sake, and my father said without raising his voice: 

6 • Joyce Carol Oates 

Where? Where can I go? I'm here. I'm in my skin. Here. This is it. 

He is lying against the crooked pillows, there are tufts of dark 
hair on the joints of his toes, the air in the bedroom is stale and smells 
of tobacco smoke, whisky, sweat, unwashed clothes. The last time it 
rained, my father didn't close the window, so the mattress got soaked 
and the wallpaper got stained but the air was fresh. What does it mean, 
stupid Irene asked, — the Holy Ghost "departed"? What does it mean? 
Is it something like God, or Jesus Christ — ? Will we be all right? 

I am running across the roof of our building. Running, flying, 
my arms outstretched. No one can catch me. No one can see me. A 
woman is hanging up laundry in the heat, clothespins and nylon cord 
and a wicker basket filled with damp clothes, she calls after me but I 
don't hear, I am already past the chimneys, jumping across to the next 
building, no one knows my name. One building and then another and 
another. The air is wavy with heat. There are expanses of soft tar. There 
are plyboard strips to walk on. Loose bricks, stacks of asphalt siding, 
beer cans, yellowed newspapers. Last spring a boy held me out over the 
edge of the roof, he wanted to make me cry but I wouldn't, he wanted 
to make me beg him but I wouldn't, and afterward when they let me go 
and I ran I heard him say, She runs like a deer — which makes me proud. 
A deer or a light-footed horse or a cheetah. Running springing up into 
the air. My hair flying, my arms outstretched. You're dreaming with 
your eyes open, my mother says. But I'm not asleep. I'm not in bed. It's 
daytime and I'm running across the roofs above Main Street, jumping 
six feet at a stretch, ten feet, twelve, high up into the air, and when I 
come down it doesn't hurt my feet, I feel nothing at all, no more than a 
deer or a horse or a cheetah would, not looking to the left or right. 

Once some of us climbed down the fire escape here and went 
into an opened window into a corridor, but we couldn't figure out where 
we were. An old fat woman in a bathrobe chased us back out. You're the 
ones, she said, I'm going to call the police, but we climbed back out and 
ran across the roof laughing. We didn't take anything. But we were 
blamed. Irene told my mother. Some kids had stolen somebody's mail 
including a check, so we were blamed but it wasn't our fault, I didn't 
even know who had done it. We should burn the building down, I said. 
The whole damn row of buildings down. See how they like it then. 

I am eleven years old, I have stopped growing, the school nurse 

The Witness • 7 

says I must bruise easily. What are these marks on the backs of your 
legs? And I was so ashamed, when the nurse made us all take off our 
shoes and socks, and my feet weren't clean. Don't cry, one of the girls 
said. But I wasn't crying. 

Clothespoles and television antennae and pigeons, and pigeon 
droppings all over. Which is why you can't run up here barefoot. That, 
and the hot tar. The hot asphalt. It makes me dizzy to look over the 
edge, the girls are always saying, but we're only five floors up, the 
buildings along Main Street aren't very high, nothing like the Wolcott 
Building where we played in the elevators: fifteen floors not counting 
the basements. Is someone calling after me? Is it Momma shouting my 
name? I am running downstairs now, in the dark. I know which building 
this is, at the far end of the block, I'll come out on the street between 
the La Mode Women's Fashions and Dutch Boy Paint & Paper. 

Whoa, little horsey! old Mr. Ledbetter says. 

Don't you touch me, I whisper. And duck under his arm. 

Why did I go all the way out to Waterman Park, they will ask me 
afterward. Was I crazy, to take the bus three miles alone, to go out there 
by myself. . . . The woman stumbling in the grass, in the high grass 
along the canal bank, wasn't anyone I knew. I really didn't look. I shut 
my eyes, I pressed my hands against my ears. She was Momma's age 
maybe. She had hair the color of Aunt June's — dark brown that looked 
maroon, like she'd dunked it in purple ink. The red scarf around her 
neck was one of those filmy chiffon scarfs Irene bought at Woolworth's. 
You tied them around your neck just for the looks of it. Or around your 
head if your hair was up in curlers. 

Once when they were fighting and Irene was at the roller rink 
with her boy friend I ran away to my uncle's and aunt's house across 
town — that was a long time ago, the summer before. My aunt hid me 
in the bathroom where my little cousins couldn't peek at me. She washed 
my face, and brushed my hair except for the snarls, and hugged me, and 
said not to cry. She asked about my father. Wasn't he seeing that doctor 
any more, wasn't he seeing any doctor? She asked about my mother — 
"Why doesn't she ever give me a call? I miss her" — but I didn't know 
how to answer. I told her I wanted to live at her house. I wasn't going 
back home. I made her promise not to telephone my mother and say I 

8 • Joyce Carol Oates 

was there. 

She let me make popcorn for myself and my little cousins. I 
melted butter in a tin measuring cup on the stove. But I shook too 
much salt on the popcorn — I wasn't used to her salt shaker. 

She promised not to call my mother but she must have called 
because my mother and father both came to get me, in a car borrowed 
from the people who lived next door. I ran to hide under the stairs. I 
wasn't crying but I was afraid. When they pulled me out I told Aunt 
June I hated her and wished she was dead. So Momma slapped me. I 
knew she would slap me. I didn't care, I wasn't crying. I wish I could 
close my eyes and see Aunt June's face but I can't. I mean, the way she 
was then. So many years ago. The house on Ingleside Avenue, the red- 
brick fake siding, my youngest cousin still in diapers. She wasn't as pretty 
as my mother. But she was pretty. She was just a young woman, wasn't 
she? — maybe twenty-six, twenty-seven years old. A mole on her cheek, 
the maroon-gleaming hair in a pageboy, crimson lipstick, her eyebrows 
penciled in like Elizabeth Taylor's — too heavy and dark for her narrow 
face. I can't see her now. There isn't any young woman there. I open my 
eyes and see an angry old woman staring right through me. Her scalp 
shows through her thin white hair and her eyes are badly bloodshot. 
She can't talk now because of the throat cancer — because of the operation. 
She's angry at me because I am still alive. Because I told her I hated her 
that day, and wished she was dead. But I never meant it. God will forgive 
me. Unless God is angry too. 

I am running inside the store windows, one after another after another. 
And in the windows of cars parked at the curb. The lady shoppers are 
annoyed with me but I don't pay any attention to them, I don't even 
look at them, no one knows my name. The window of the jewelry store, 
and the window of the discount drug store, and the long wide windows 
of Woolworth's, a shadow-girl running, weightless, quick as a deer. My 
father says it's no point in going back to Isle Royale to work for the 
National Parks Service, it's no point going back to visit my grandparents 
in the northern peninsula, or looking for a job, or taking up his church 
work again (after he was discharged from the hospital he'd gone around 
door-to-door with the Bible for a few months but I don't know all that 
happened — Momma won't tell us): it's no point going anywhere because 

The Witness • 9 

all spots are the same identical spot in God's mind and he was perfectly 
happy where he was. But I wanted to take the bus out to Waterman 
Park because I loved it there. Because I was so happy the times we went 

Except once. But I didn't tell anyone. 

That time, at the Jaycees' picnic, Momma and Aunt June took 
us all out. I won first prize in the ten-to-twelve-year-old foot race, and 
was given a silver dollar, and a boy named Pat I knew from school, he 
was in the seventh grade, asked me if he could see it. He said he'd never 
seen a real silver dollar before. So I showed it to him. Can I hold it? he 
said. I didn't want to give it to him, I said, Why? — you can see it. No, 
he said, coming closer, I just want to hold it for a second. I had it in my 
hand. Come on, he said, let's see, and I didn't want to but I held it up, 
and he snatched it out of my fingers and ran away behind the 
refreshment-and-restrooms building with the little tower on top. I cried 
but didn't tell anyone, not even Irene. I told her I lost the silver dollar. 
"Then that's double bad luck," she said. 

My father says he's proud of his little girl. Proud of both his 
little girls. But he doesn't want to talk because his head starts to ache 
and because there isn't anything to say he hasn't said already. Also the 
light hurts his eyes. Also my voice hurts his ears. "If I had it in me to 
love anyone I would love you," he says, shaking his cigarette ash in the 
ashtray, "but you know the Holy Ghost saw fit to depart from me leaving 
just this husk and whited sepulchre, and I can't lift a finger in rebellion. 
'The Spirit bloweth where it will.' Do you know what that means? That 
means everything." 

My mother begins to cry. Short ugly sobs like hiccups. My father turns 
away as if the sight disgusts him. But he doesn't say anything. He isn't 
angry. He never gets angry any longer. 

"I don't want to taste blood," he says. "Not ever again." 

The black bus driver doesn't seem to think it's strange that I have climbed 
up into the bus by myself, dropped two nickels into the fare box, gone 
to sit by one of the windows at the rear of the bus. My heart is beating 
like crazy. There is a queer sensation in the pit of my stomach. To be 
riding the bus alone! Out to the park alone! But I don't have my bathing 

10 • Joyce Carol Oates 

suit. I won't be able to swim in the pool. Two Sundays before, Irene and 
I went out with a carload of kids, the mother of one of Irene's girl friends 
drove us out, we swam all afternoon in the pool and had a picnic lunch 
before coming back home. But now I'm alone. Now I'm going to be 
alone for the rest of my life. 

The seashell ashtray is a souvenir of Tampa, Florida. At its center a 
miniature mermaid has been fashioned partly out of creamy pink shells, 
her coiled fish tail glittering prettily, her blue eyes blank and staring. 
She has seaweed hair that hides her breasts. She is very shapely. But no 
one admires her any longer, she's been discolored with tobacco, ashes, 
grime from my father's fingers. No one sees her any longer. 

The ashtray sits on my father's chest or abdomen, rising gently, 
falling. Gradually it becomes filled with ashes and then the ashes are 
dumped into a wastebasket. I can see my father's crinkly chest hair 
through his undershirt, curly-red going gray. And under his arms. I can 
remember how his hair used to grow close about his temples, and in 
warm weather it would curl damp on his forehead. But now he is going 
bald. His eyes are a strange pale pebble-color, not blue and not gray, but 
lighter than his skin. Why is his forehead so creased? — and the cheeks 
too. He is always thinking. He frowns, makes faces, runs his nicotine- 
stained forefinger hard across his front teeth. "I don't trust myself out 
there," he has said. He means out the window, out on the street. 
Anywhere outside. "I don't want to taste blood ever again." 

He smokes Camels. The bed and the floor are littered with 
cellophane wrappers and those little red cellophane strips. The brand of 
whisky varies, why can't I remember the labels on the bottles, why are 
they so much less distinct than the cigarettes . . . . ? 

Sometimes we play gin rummy for pennies but whoever wins 
has to put the pennies back in the "kitty" — in a cigar box. Sometimes 
we play checkers, Parcheesi, or one of the games with dice that Irene is 
crazy about. The three of us shaking the dice in a little black cardboard 
cup that got soft and damp from our hands, hooting with laughter, 
exclaiming, while rain hammered against the window a few feet from 
the bed, and the air in the room was close and stale and cozy and secret. 
Only the three of us. My mother never played even when she wasn't at 

The Witness • 11 

My father had a disability pension but something had gone 
wrong, or hadn't been completed, so the checks never came. My father 
and mother quarreled about this but my father explained to Irene and 
me that it was better to go without than to crawl. "They want to make 
a man crawl," he said. "But the Spirit of the Lord is infused with too 
much pride for that." So he lies on top of the bedspread smoking his 
cigarettes and drinking his whisky, at peace. Sometimes he will flick 
through the newspaper or something I bring home from school, but 
mainly he reads the Bible. He reads a verse or a page at a time, then leafs 
through to another section and reads there, his lips working, his forehead 
sharply creased. Anything he discovers in the Bible is important. But 
then it is important too to close the book, and open it again at another 
place, and read any verse his eye happens upon. It is the most important 
thing in life. It is life. But all the verses are of equal importance. 

What is going to happen? Momma's older sister from Trenton 

I don't know, Momma said. 

I mean — isn't he dangerous? If he was arrested for trying to kill 
that guy, whoever it was — 

That won't happen again, Momma said. 

How do you know it won't happen again? 

Because it won't. 

How do you know, for Christ's sake? 

I don't know, Momma said. Go ask him yourself. 

He might hurt you or the girls — 

Not the girls, Momma said flatly. He's crazy about the girls. 

There are a half-dozen scorch marks on the bedspread, a long 
narrow one on the pillow case. My father says he wasn't asleep but 
somehow the cigarette slipped from his fingers. He wasn't asleep, the 
light was on, he'd been studying the Bible. Once at four in the morning 
he had to beat out a little fire with his hands and he burnt himself so 
that tears ran down his cheeks from the pain, and my mother screamed 
at him, screamed and yanked and pulled at the bedclothes, tearing the 
sheets off the bed, throwing the pillows on the floor. Irene was too 
frightened to see what was wrong, she just lay there not moving in bed, 
but I ran out in my nightgown, and there was my mother sobbing and 
my father with his hands cupped in a strange way, the fingers bent like 

12 • Joyce Carol Oates 

claws, trying to comfort her. "It wasn't anything," he said. "It was just 
an accident. Calm down. Calm down. God only meant it as a warning." 

At Waterman Park there is sometimes a crippled man who isn't a beggar, 
a man with funny mottled skin, nothing but stumps for thighs, rolling 
himself around on a wooden platform with skate wheels attached. He 
wears gloves so his hands won't be hurt. I never look at him. My eyes 
dart to him but then lift over his head. Momma says it's rude to stare at 
a cripple but that isn't why I don't look at him. 

This afternoon he's here — pushing himself on his little wooden 
platform around the wading pool where the small children are splashing 
and trying to swim. His shoulder and arm muscles are all bunched, his 
neck is thick as my father's, in spite of the heat he is wearing a felt cap. 
He pushes himself slowly along the pavement. His movements are precise 
and rhythmic and unhurried. If you make the mistake of looking into 
his face you see that one of the eyes is milky and staring off into the air. 
But the other eye is fixed onto you. 

Why did you go out to Waterman Park alone, they will ask. All 
the way out there alone. You little brat. You liar. 

Were you testing God's love for you, my father will ask. But you 
should know better. You should know that He loves you in any case. 
You can't injure His love. You can't increase it. You can't even test it. 

I am running through the sloshing chlorinated water at the 
shallow end of the swimming pool, making my way around the other 
children. I am running barefoot up to my knees in the water, giggling as 
if someone is chasing me. The skirt of my dress is wet, my underpants 
are splashed. I want to laugh and shout and scream and kick, pummeling 
my arms, making a windmill of my arms. I collide with a little girl of six 
or seven and her head is dunked underwater but it isn't my fault, I keep 
on running. Someone shouts behind me but I keep on running, waving 
my arms, squealing as if I am being chased. 

I am swinging on one of the swings, kicking myself higher, 
higher. The sky is empty and very blue. I am stretching my legs as straight 
as they will go. No one is pushing me. No one calls out to warn me that 
I am going too high, that I'm being reckless. Suppose I jump off — and 
let the swing fly backward? — suppose it strikes the boy swinging beside 
me? That happened once when I was a little girl. My grandfather was 

The Witness • 13 

pushing me then and he scolded me. But now no one is watching, no 
one knows where I am. I can jump off the swing and let it fly back, I can 
do anything I want. 

My head is ringing, my throat feels very dry. I am climbing up 
the slide, clambering up like a monkey, clowning around. At the top I 
am going to jump right off. I've done it before, it isn't dangerous, but 
the soles of my feet will tingle. I don't want to lose my balance and fall 
by accident. I feel lightheaded all of a sudden. So I go down the slide 
the way you're supposed to, pushing myself down, the hot metal makes 
my skin stick, I hear myself whimpering aloud in pain, it's a mistake to 
be here, something is going to happen, I am going to be punished. . . . 
Then I'm safe on the ground again, springing up on my heels. I haven't 
been burnt. I don't give a damn what happens. 

"Moving your hand, see: this is God," my father says, raising 
his hand slowly in front of his face. "But then — " and here he whips his 
head around and pretends to be spying on his other hand, halfway behind 
his back. " — here's God too. All sides. All points. Do you know what 
that means?" He pauses to look at me. His smile is gentle. " That means 

The ice cream cone is melting, chocolate ice cream running 
down my forearm to my elbow. It's very sweet but hasn't any taste. My 
throat is aching from all the dust. Suddenly I am angry — suddenly I 
feel sick to my stomach. I let the ice cream cone drop onto the grass. 
Something is wrong but I don't know what it is. I don't know how to 
name it. 

I am very excited, but I don't know where to run. I can run and 
run and run. I'll never get tired or hungry, I can run forever. Jumping 
into the air, leaping, landing on my toes and springing up again, who 
will stop me? — who knows where I am? Momma wiped her eyes with 
her knuckles and pushed past me, she didn't care that I was peeking in 
on them, she didn't scold. Behind her my father was saying, "I love you, 
you know that. I love you first last and always." He spoke quietly, he 
never raises his voice. 

Can you fall asleep with your eyes open? I wonder. I have been 
standing staring at some pigeons picking in the garbage. Five, six, seven 
of them. Beautiful wings, tail feathers. Pebble-colored eyes. The beaks 
picking, striking, never making a mistake. But if one pigeon comes too 

14 • Joyce Carol Oates 

close to another it's chased away. The pigeons are actually very angry — 
you wouldn't want them to peck at your outstretched hand. You wouldn't 
want them to peck at your eyes. 

Can you see things when you're awake? I wonder. Like dreams. 
Like wisps and bits of dreams. But with your eyes open. 

There is a snapshot in blurred blazing color of my father and a 
red fox, taken up at Isle Royale on the lake, when he worked for the 
government for eight months. My father is wearing a blue nylon 
Windbreaker and a wool cap, he's squatting, grinning at the camera, 
and the fox is only a few yards away, his slender snout turned three- 
quarters toward my father. It looks as if the fox is grinning too. My 
father is very handsome but the visor of the cap cuts across his eyes 
making a dark shadow. Whoever took the picture faced the sun too 
directly, the scene is over-exposed, blazing with light. "Your father had 
to get away for a while but it doesn't mean he stopped loving us," Momma 
explained. She explained this to everyone she met. 

The program my father was hired for had something to do with 
charting the movements and patterns of behavior of timber wolves. 
Whether their population was stable or not. Whether their prey — deer, 
moose, rabbits — was stable. At first he loved the work because of the 
solitude, the silence, for weeks on end. Then the work began to sicken 
him: he had to examine the part-devoured carcasses of animals, he had 
to take photographs, keep records. He still limped from the accident at 
the foundry and the cold weather — sometimes it was 30° below zero, 
not counting the wind-chill — made the injury worse. So he came home. 
"I never stopped loving you," he said. "Did you stop loving me?" 

I can hear the crippled man grunt as he pulls himself along on 
his wooden platform, but I don't look up. If I don't see him he can't see 
me. The pigeons are still pecking in the garbage, squabbling over a hot- 
dog bun. Rushing at one another with their wings outstretched. Is it 
still the same time, hasn't anything changed? — the sun will never move 
in the sky. 

Dear God I am so afraid of what is going to happen. Dear God 
forgive me my sins. Help me to be a good girl. 

Momma keeps saying: "Things are getting better now, the worst 
is over." 

Momma keeps saying, pouring some whisky for herself while 

The Witness • 15 

she's talking on the telephone: "He needs me. He loves me. I love 
him. It isn't the way you think." 

A boy of about seventeen is crouched in the rose garden, taking 
photographs of a bride and her new husband, everyone is smiling, 
laughing, calling out, maybe they're a little drunk. If I was behind the 
married couple I could get in the picture but I'm on the wrong side, 
behind the photographer, peeking through a trellis. There are five middle- 
aged women in the wedding party, all dressed up, corsages on their 
shoulders, hats with pretty straw brims, but only three men. No one 
pays any attention to me. The bride in her long white beautiful dress, 
with her lace veil hanging down over her back, smiles toward me but 
doesn't see me. I can roll my eyes and stick out my tongue like I'm 
choking, it won't make any difference. 

I am a snorting horse, a moose with its head lowered, galloping 
along the path, kicking up gravel. The hell with them staring at me — I 
don't give a damn. The North Pole is in one direction, the Equator in 
another, but there isn't anywhere to go that isn't God. 

Now I am running along the edge of the park, an angry little 
heart is beating in the center of my forehead. You aren't supposed to 
climb down, the signs say Warning, pebbles and rocks and hunks of 
dried mud are coming loose, you can hurt yourself falling, my hand is 
scraped and bleeding a little but there isn't much pain, the sensation is 
mainly numb, the dust will clot the bleeding and make it stop. I am 
singing at the top of my lungs. Singing and laughing. I will never go 
back home again: I will live in the park forever. 

Did you stop loving me? someone whispers. . . . loving me, 
loving me? 

I am all hooves and wings and flashing antlers. Scaly rippling 

Then suddenly I see them: a man and a woman down by the 
canal: but I've seen them before, those two, on the canal bank in the 
high grass, and there isn't anything I can do to stop it. 

The man is jerking the woman along, his fingers are closed around her 
bare upper arm. She is already crying. She shouldn't cry, it makes him 
all the more angry, they don't like tears. I know he's going to kill her but 
I can't get away. I can't stop it. 

16 • Joyce Carol Oates 

His blue coat is slung over his right shoulder, his trousers are 
streaked with dust. He is wearing a necktie made of some shiny silvery 
material. His hair is no color at all — trimmed short — standing up stiff 
and straight as a brush. He has a pig's snout, his face is red and mottled. 
His voice isn't raised but you can tell he's very angry. 

The woman isn't pretty. Her lips are too thick and blubbery 
She has a double chin that wobbles as he pulls her along, I can't stand to 
look at her, hair dyed maroon and teased out around her head like straw, 
filmy red scarf around her neck, high heels that make her stagger in the 
grass. She is wearing one of those off-the-shoulder blouses with the 
elastic neck, they're in Sears' window, Mexican or Spanish they're 
supposed to be, and a red cotton skirt with a black elastic belt, cinching 
her waist in tight so that her fat hips bulge, and her fat breasts. When 
the worst of it begins I am crouched down hiding, my eyes are shut 
tight and my hands are pressed over my ears. I don't hear her screaming, 
I don't hear the thuds, the blows. I don't hear a thing. 

I hadn't been asleep. But when I opened my eyes I was in the park again, 
in the rose garden again, crouching behind the trellis. It was still daylight. 
Maybe no time had passed. Children were still playing in the pool, my 
head felt very strange but I wasn't bleeding anywhere so maybe everything 
was all right. The roses were very beautiful, I hadn't looked at them 
before. The wedding party had gone. 

I knew it was later because I was so hungry. The sun had shifted 
in the sky. 

I started crying and couldn't stop. 

A woman in yellow shorts came by, another woman joined her, 
a patrolman, a small staring crowd. My knees had given out and I was 
sitting on the grass. I was afraid of wetting myself and soiling my 
underpants but I couldn't stop crying. The woman was lying on her 
back, her skirt was pulled up, her thick pale lardy flesh exposed. One 
high-heeled shoe had been twisted off her foot but the strap was still 
attached to her ankle. I didn't see any blood. I didn't hear anything. The 
man's necktie had flapped over his shoulder as he ran away but I didn't 
really see it, I wasn't watching. I was crouched down behind a pile of 
rocks hiding with my hands pressed against my ears. My heart beat so 
hard in my chest I knew it was going to burst. 

The Witness • 17 

They were asking me what was wrong but I couldn't answer. 
Was I sick? Had I hurt myself? Had someone hurt me? I couldn't get my 
breath to answer. Had I fallen off the slide? A woman told the patrolman 
she had seen me on the playground earlier, I had been acting "strangely." 
It was her opinion that I was lost. More people drifted by. Children 
staring. Was I lost? Where were my parents? Were they at the park? 
What was my name? 

I was shivering so hard the policeman took a beach towel from 
one of the women and wrapped it around me. He said I'd be all right 
now, nothing bad would happen. But my teeth kept chattering. I couldn't 
get my breath. 

It's hysteria, the policeman said, you see it all the time. He wore 
sunglasses with very dark green lenses. His voice was kindly, he wasn't 

In the ambulance going to the hospital I did soil my underpants. 
But nobody said a word about it afterward. 

After the accident at the foundry when two men on my father's shift 
were killed, and my father was hospitalized, the "great silence" came 
over him more and more often. 

He would be lying in bed. Or walking with a cane along the 
corridor. Or joking with the nurses. Or staring out the window over the 
parking lot. ("Sometimes it was the way the sunlight flashed on a 
windshield: simple as that," he says.) There would be a pressure in his 
ears, and a deafening roar, and then silence. Just — silence. 

He couldn't hear anything. He couldn't swallow or blink. 
Nothing had changed around him but it was all at a distance because he 
was in God's mind. He could hear God's thoughts, which were identical 
with his own. "There is the first half of my life," he says, "and then the 
second. I'm in the second now. I was in it all the time but I didn't know. 
God had been with me all the time but I didn't know. You think you're 
alone — that makes you happy when you're a kid — I mean, you can get 
away with anything, do anything, right? But God is with you all the 
time. You're not free. Even the thought of it, being free, it's God's thought 
in your head. Whatever you think or do, God has got there first. So you 
can't make mistakes. Even the warnings He sends you aren't mistakes." 

Sometimes when it snows — when it has been snowing for days 

18 • Joyce Carol Oates 

on end, as it has this winter — I stand at the window and hear the silence 
all around me. I know it will swallow me up someday the way it did my 

But even this thought — isn't it God's? Of course it is. 

In the hospital I started to tell them about the woman by the canal, 
what the man had done to her, but my words were garbled and I couldn't 
get my breath. If I closed my eyes I could see her but when I opened 
them I couldn't remember what I was saying. There was blood on the 
lower part of her jaw. There was blood, a widening circle of blood, on 
her blouse. 

He had killed her. Then he'd run away. But not light on his feet, 
not leaping and prancing. He hadn't any hooves or wings. The blood 
had splashed onto his shirt. I hated them both — they were so ugly. 

"You never saw anything," my mother tells me, whispering, 
leaning over the bed, giving me a secret shake. "You mind your own 

Someone was sent out to search by the canal but of course there 
wasn't any body, there wasn't any evidence of blood or struggle. A single 
high-heeled shoe was found in the grass. 

"She makes things up," my mother says, not looking at me. 

Later, after a woman was reported missing, they dragged the 
canal but never found any body. By then I was back home (I'd only 
been in the hospital overnight, in the children's ward), by then school 
had started. 

"You just tell them you don't remember," my mother says. "Tell 
them you don't know. Anyway you made it all up — didn't you?" My 
father's door has been closed against me for a long time. If I press my ear 
against it I can hear him singing and humming to himself, sometimes 
Irene and one of her girl friends are in there with him, playing gin 
rummy, or shaking the dice until they rattle in the old cardboard cup. 
The three of them laugh together, I think they must want me to hear. 
"Anyway you made it up," my mother says, lighting a cigarette, staring 
at me, "didn't you?" 

She has never said anything about the $3.87 from her bureau 
drawer. Which means I didn't take it — which means that nothing has 
happened. But my father's door is closed against me for eleven days. I 

The Witness • 19 

am chipping at the plaster in the wall beside my bed with a safety pin, 
to mark each day 

20 • Joyce Carol Oates